Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington helped create these striking visuals of life for free African Americans at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1852, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked an audience what the Fourth of July should mean to a population of enslaved African Americans. Forty-eight years later, still pondering the question of “independence” for the formerly enslaved, a group of black researchers attempted to quantify the answer in sociological terms. Among this study group was the noted scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, a man normally billed as Du Bois’ intellectual rival. Together, they worked under the tutelage of the prominent black lawyer Thomas J. Calloway to create an exhibit for the Paris Exposition Universelle world’s fair in 1900.
The researchers worked with students from historically black colleges including Atlanta University and Tuskegee to compile hundreds of photographs, maps, and other illustrations documenting the African-American experience in the decades after slavery. Dubbed “The Negro Exhibit,” it was a true FUBU operation—meaning “planned and executed by Negroes,” as Du Bois referred to it in an article for the November 1900 edition of The American Monthly Review of Reviews.
This exhibit of visual data on African Americans at the turn of the 20th century still holds up against a lot of Adobe-generated infographics created by data specialists today. The Intercept’s research editor Josh Begley recently teased on Twitter that Du Bois “ethered your data visualizations 100 years ago.“ And Allison Meier waxed about the exhibit in a July 4th post for the arts and culture blog Hyperallergic :
Looking at the charts, they’re strikingly vibrant and modern, almost anticipating the crossing lines of Piet Mondrian or the intersecting shapes of Wassily Kandinsky. But they are in line with innovative 19th-century data visualization, which included Florence Nightingale’s “coxcomb” diagrams on causes of war mortality and William Farr’s dynamic cholera charts. Du Bois himself used horizontal bar graphs in his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro.
Calloway wrote in 1901 in the “Report to the Commissioner-general for the United States to the International Universal Exposition” that the goal for the exhibit was to “show ten things concerning the negroes in America since their emancipation.” Among those things was the “education of the race” and the effects of that education on occupation, property, business and industrial development for African Americans. Below are a few of the data visualizations, as archived at the Library of Congress that focus on Georgia, which at the time had the largest black population in the U.S.: